If you were in New Orleans today, you’d likely be one or more of the following: dancing in the streets; donning a truckload of gold, green and purple beads; holding a beer; in a crowd with many drunk people; wearing a colorful costume; watching an even more colorful parade; feasting at a crawfish boil; having a third slice of king cake.
That’s because today is Mardi Gras.
French for Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras marks the day before the fasting period of Lent begins.
One of my closest friends who is from New Orleans called Mardi Gras “the epitome of a city letting itself have a good time,” a space where people can “allow themselves to feel pleasure and joy and indulgence.”
Mardi Gras is like a “less scary Halloween” because of all the colorful costumes, my friend said. It’s similar to St. Patrick’s Day as drinking in the streets is acceptable (and legal), as well as Christmas for all the decorations and time spent with family and friends. But in order to fully understand the magic of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you just have to be there.
But if you aren’t in New Orleans, you can at least enjoy a slice of Mardi Gras by making king cake.
A yeasted cake based in Christianity, king cake is traditionally eaten between the Epiphany and Fat Tuesday. Its texture and flavor is similar to cinnamon rolls and babka. While they contain various fillings and icings, all king cakes are showered with gold, green and purple sprinkles representing power, faith and justice, respectively.
Here I attempted to re-create the first king cake I ever tried, from a New Orleans bakery called Bittersweet Confections. You’ll typically find a cinnamon and brown sugar filling along with a simple white icing, but this version is all about the chocolate.
Bittersweet Confections stuffs its king cake with a chocolate cream cheese filling and glazes it with a chocolate ganache that pools in the cake’s center. If that wasn’t enough chocolate, the cake is then topped with truffles. We had it shipped from New Orleans last year, and I’ve been craving it ever since.
While I didn’t have time to make the truffles, I’d say my first crack at king cake turned out pretty darn well. The cream cheese filling’s tanginess countered the fudge-like ganache. It was appropriately decadent, not too sweet, and with a soft, pillowy crumb.
I’ll be honest with you: After last week, I did not want to make this cake.
It felt gluttonous to create something so indulgent and chocolatey while Ukrainians were fleeing from war, or fighting to save their home country.
But refusing to bake a king cake doesn’t help anything, nor does doom-scrolling on Twitter or being blissfully ignorant of it all. So I donated to World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that is currently in Poland providing hot meals to families fleeing Ukraine, and got to baking.
This cake is a project, so I recommend saving it for a weekend or day off. You can mix everything by hand, but it’s faster and easier with a stand mixer.
Chocolate King Cake
20 ounces bread flour (about 4 cups)
2 ounces granulated sugar (about ¼ cup)
1 tablespoon dry yeast (I used active dry)
1¼ teaspoons fine sea salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
9 ounces buttermilk, room temperature
4 large egg yolks, room temperature
1 large egg, room temperature
3 ounces unsalted butter (6 tablespoons), melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
Combine the flour, sugar, yeast, sea salt and cinnamon (if using) in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, egg yolks, egg, butter and vanilla.
Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl with the dry ingredients and mix on medium-low speed for 13-15 minutes until a smooth dough forms, scraping down the bowl occasionally. The dough should feel tacky but not sticky. If it is too wet at this point, add an additional 1-2 tablespoons of flour and mix for a few minutes until well combined.
Form the dough into a smooth ball with your hands and place in a large bowl (I didn’t grease mine and the dough came out easily). Let rise in a warm area for 45 minutes to one hour until doubled in size.
For the chocolate cream cheese filling
⅔ cup semi-sweet chocolate, chopped (or use chocolate chips)
⅔ cup dark chocolate, 70%-72% cocoa, chopped (or use chocolate chips)
12 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
⅓ cup brown sugar
1 egg, room temperature
1 tablespoon cinnamon (optional)
Melt the chocolate together in a small bowl, using either a double boiler or microwave.
Using a stand or hand mixer, whip the cream cheese for one to two minutes before adding the brown sugar, egg and optional cinnamon. Add in the melted chocolate and mix until well combined and fluffy.
Once the dough has doubled in size, scrape the dough onto a clean counter and cut into two pieces. Set one aside.
Stretch and roll the dough out into a large rectangle, about 10-12 inches by 16 inches and about ¼ inch thick. You may have to let the dough rest a few minutes for the gluten to stretch easily.
Take half the cream cheese filling and spread it evenly over the dough, leaving a ½-1 inch border all around.
Roll the dough into a tight log along the long side (like you would for cinnamon rolls), pinching the seam to seal it. Repeat with the second dough.
Place the center of one dough over the center of the other, forming an X shape. Lift one side over the other, eventually forming a twist. Bring both ends together to form an oval shape and pinch the seams together. Alternatively, you can make two smaller cakes by keeping the two doughs separate and skipping the twisting step.
Place on a large sheet pan with a baking mat or parchment paper, cover with plastic or a damp towel and let rise for 45 minutes to one hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 30-35 minutes until golden brown, rotating pan halfway through. The temperature should read between 198 and 205 degrees. Let cool.
8 ounces (about 1⅓ cup) of dark or semi-sweet chocolate (chips or chopped from a bar)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
Once the cake is cool, make the chocolate ganache.
Heat heavy whipping cream in a small saucepan, stirring occasionally. Once the cream starts to simmer, take it off the heat and add the chocolate. Ensure the chocolate is coated but do not mix yet.
Cover the pan with a lid and let sit undisturbed for five minutes. Remove the lid and whisk until smooth and velvety.
Let the ganache sit for 5-10 minutes before pouring it evenly over the cake.
Top with green, purple and gold sprinkles and allow the ganache to cool and solidify. Or do what I did and dig in right away.